After a lunch that featured a Prosciutto salad that would soon become legend, we made our way to one of the larger cider producers we visited in France. The Ecusson facility had been being used to press and ferment cider since 1919.
We arrived shortly after 1:30pm and immediately put on hairnets and jackets. The bottling line was going to be shutting down at 2pm, so our host – “Head Cider Master” Philipe began our tour by showing us their bottling process. (Despite being one of two facilities in France that made us wear some sort of personal hygiene equipment, the overall cleanliness was still consistent with the rest of France: surprising, to say the least).
The bottling line was a large, rotary line capable of cranking out 12,000 bottles an hour. The line is capable of both 750ml and 330ml bottles - On this day they were packaging 750ml bottles. Like most producers in France, the majority of their production was ending up in green 75cl bottles (that were being stored outside before bottling). The entire process included everything from a cork and cage machine (that housed the corks outside in a large silo), to tunnel pasteurizer, a series of bottle labelers, a cardboard case erector, and palletizer. We then were led in to their warehouse that included a lifetime supply of packaged cider, including a variety of brands for different markets and stores. Next, we walked over to begin the tour of their pressing process.
Between September 15 and November 30, this facility receives anywhere between 3000-7000 tonnes a day from surrounding orchards. All of the apples arrive on trucks (not in bins) and are dumped on the cement. The location of where they are dumped is how they are sorting varietals into piles and separating for different product lines. At the time of pressing, they dump the apples in a large cement basin that has a channel of flowing water running through the bottom. This channel serves to both rinse the apples and float them through an underground float facility towards the direction of the grinder.
During this process they are performing quality control checks on the apples, for both maturity and removing foreign objects such as field debris or rocks. They currently have two large piston presses and one smaller press, but they will soon be replacing the smaller press with a third large Bucher press. From there, the must heads to tanks in their cellar. Their cellar was temperature controlled rooms with 9 x 3000 hL tanks. The rate of fermentation would dictate what product it would become, either Brut or Doux. Ecusson had an extensive lab and QC protocol, and was running a variety of tests all year long.
One of the most interesting and unique aspects of our Ecusson visit was a brand new machine they were calling their “continuous keeving machine”. To “keeve”, they are racking through this machine that adds both PME and Calcium chloride and then simulates the initial gas production that comes with the start of fermentation. They are pumping nitrogen bubbles through the must, which is removing the same macro-moleculars that a traditional keeve through a simulated process. This continuous keeve machine allows them to keeve in half the time a traditional keeve would.
Even though they have this fancy new technique, this past year was the first year they had the machine it so they still experimenting are figuring out how to best utilize it. Therefore, their primary keeving technique is adding pectinase to get the macro-moleculars to drop out of suspension and then rack off those. They are, however, also keeving the traditional “chapeau brun” way but in very little quantities comparatively.
Side Note: Employing over 70 people, they are capable on splitting their team into three different groups. The time of year will determine what these teams are doing. For example, around harvest time in the fall two teams will be pressing and one will be in the cellar/lab, while in the spring and summer two (to sometimes all three) will be running the bottling line.
Philipe and his cellar manager guided us through a tasting of their ciders in their retail store and were most generous. They even ran out to the bus to gift us a couple cases of cider for the road!